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Campaigners: Rural broadband inquiry is a step 'in the right direction'

Tuesday, November 4th 2014 by Ellen Branagh

Campaigners for better rural broadband have welcomed a Commons select committee inquiry into the issue.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee has launched an inquiry looking at the current broadband coverage in rural areas and new “digital-only services”, such as applications for Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) schemes.

From January 2015 applications for CAP schemes will have to be made online in a change that has previously been slammed by rural campaigners.

The Rural Payments Agency (RPA), the agency responsible for delivering EU CAP payments, has committed to providing extra support for customers who cannot get online, do not have access to a computer, or don’t have the skills to use one.

The inquiry will gather evidence on the extent of broadband coverage in hardest to reach rural areas, digital access and experience of digital-only programmes such as the new CAP system applications, and support available for those required to use those programmes.

The inquiry has been welcomed by campaigners for better rural broadband.

Dr Charles Trotman, senior business and economics adviser at the CLA, which represents landowners, farmers and rural businesses, told Cable.co.uk: “The CLA welcomes the announcement by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Select Committee to hold an inquiry into broadband in rural areas and in particular, the implementation of the new IT arrangements as part of the Basic Payment Scheme, due to come into force on 1 January 2015.

“The CLA was the first organisation to recognise the importance of broadband technology to rural areas back in 2002.

“The very fact that inquiries into the issue are still taking place means that not enough progress has been made.

“It is good that others are now beginning to understand the huge advantages broadband will bring in terms of sustainable rural economic growth but now is the time for the Select Committee to focus on the need for effective universality of broadband provision so that all can benefit.”

A spokeswoman for Action with Communities in Rural England (ACRE) said: “We very much welcome the inquiry and it is very timely with the expectation that the farming community will make all CAP payments on line next year.

“We are planning to submit a response from our Network of rural community councils – we have asked them this morning for their opinions so we can co-ordinate a national response.”

Sarah Lee, head of policy for the Countryside Alliance, said: “We welcome the EFRA Committee’s inquiry into rural broadband and digital-only services.

“From January 2015 the UK’s 100,000-plus farmers will be asked to make their Basic Payment Scheme (replaces Single Farm Payment Scheme) application online.

“However around 20,000 of those currently have no access to the internet or do not have sufficient broadband speeds to be able to do that.

“The farming industry has been working closely with the government and the Rural Payments Agency to make sure no-one is left behind, but we would like assurance from Defra that these 20,000 farmers will not be penalised for a lack of digital connectivity if they fail to apply for their Basic Payment Scheme by May 2015.”

Nicholas Lansman, secretary general of the Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA UK), said: “Getting broadband to the hardest to reach rural areas is a challenge the internet industry is taking up by using and testing a variety of technologies, with several ISPs offering satellite, wireless, 4G and other services, and funding has helped ultrafast fibre broadband.

“Many ISPA members also run a range of digital inclusion schemes and training to bridge the digital divide.”

Edward Morgan, co-founder of AgriChatUK, a Twitter hashtag set up to help discussions among farmers on the site, said: "Having good quality internet access is getting increasingly important for farmers and other rural businesses to ensure they can stay communicated with the rest of the world.

"Not having rural broadband is leaving businesses at a disadvantage, they need the government to step in and take action.

"Any positive news in this respect is welcome and a step forward in the right direction."

The deadline for written submissions to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s inquiry is Wednesday, November 19.

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